An ancient land of diverse ecosystems frozen in time, Australia is a nature lover’s wonderland.
From emerald rainforests and fragrant eucalyptus mountains to rugged woodland caves with Aboriginal art and golden ribbons of coastline, there are many stunning places where you can experience the beauty of this vast island nation. Even staying in the laid-back cities, rainbow lorikeets squeal at sunset, and the crashing crystal waves of a beach are forever beckoning you outdoors, if just to sip Aussie wine and scoff prawns. Here are the best things to do in Australia.
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1. Admire the Sydney Opera House from a different angle
Inspired by yacht sails and surrounded by water, the glorious Sydney Opera House is a symbol of Australia itself. The majestic curves dominate Sydney Harbour and look impressive from every angle. Stroll right around its base – something many don’t know you can do. Then climb up Sydney Harbour Bridge with a guide and get a white-knuckle view of the Opera House as the wind whips up. For a quiet perspective, kayak at dawn as the sun kisses the surrounding waters, or picnic under Moreton Bay fig trees in the crowd-free Tarpeian Lawn.
Local tip: Time your visit for a prime view of Badu Gili, a light show of Aboriginal art projected onto the Opera House. It has been such a hit that in recent years it has turned into a daily event at sunset.
2. Learn about bush food under the stars in the Red Centre
The didgeridoo plays while the sun simmers on the horizon and the earth’s rusty red intensifies. Then the Southern Cross and stars spill across the sky. Enjoy a tasting menu of native bush ingredients in the Red Centre (the Northern Territory) alongside this remarkable backdrop.
Spot whale sharks, the world’s largest fish, at Ningaloo Reef © Jason Edwards / Getty Images
3. Be dazzled by the marine life at Ningaloo Reef
The Great Barrier Reef has a lesser-known but equally dazzling sibling in Western Australia. Ningaloo Reef is a jeweled necklace of coral reef that fringes the coast, especially near Exmouth, making it very accessible for snorkelers. Nearby, blowholes force ocean water to shoot through sea caves and up to 20m (66ft) into the air. Ningaloo Reef is a magical place for swimming alongside whale sharks (the world’s largest fish) and migrating humpback whales (be sure to always give these wild creatures a lot of space).
Planning tip: For children and those who don’t want to swim, glass-bottom boats are a comfortable option to see manta rays and turtles glide across the coral below.
4. Eat authentic world cuisine and new Australian fusions
Nearly half of all Australians were born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas. That’s why eating at restaurants in a Little Korea, Thai Town or Greek Precinct means you get the real deal. As always, it pays to window-shop for somewhere that has mostly local diners.
Modern Australian food highlights these world flavors through European cooking techniques, and its varied climate and nutrient-rich land produces top fresh ingredients. Chefs are exploring indigenous flavors such as desert lime, and bush banana (which resembles snow peas) with seafood, Australia’s specialty. This kind of dining is always the most exquisite with a beach, river or harbor view.
The landscape at Cradle Mountain includes pristine lakes and craggy peaks © Catherine Sutherland / Lonely Planet
5. Walk at Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, Tasmania
On first seeing Cradle Mountain, even Aussies might exclaim, “I didn’t know Australia could even look like this!” It’s true that the glacier-hewed crags and alpine heaths here have a touch of the Scandinavian. Cradle Mountain is all Australian, though, with pristine ancient rainforests, mirrored lakes and unique fauna isolated from the rest of the world. It’s down under Down Under. Hiking newbies: head to Ronny Creek for a glimpse of wombats drinking from a creek in a buttongrass moorland. The terrain is flat, and most visitors head for Dove Lake, so you’ll have the marsupials (and shuttle bus stop) to yourself.
6. Watch baby penguins waddle
The sun isn’t even up yet, and you weren’t sure if this was your thing, but when you witness the little (fairy) penguins waddle across the sand, your heart might melt. Phillip Island is the most famous penguin site, but there are other islands and even secret city spots like Manly in Sydney and St Kilda in Melbourne.
It will take some practice to ride waves like this surfer at Sydney’s Tamarama beach © RugliG / Getty Images
7. Learn to surf, or at least have a laugh trying
You might not ride a tube on your first lesson, but paddling and standing on a surfboard for one glorious moment before being dumped in a fizzle of white foam is a glorious feeling. Besides, getting water-confident will help you enjoy some of Australia’s nearly 12,000 beaches. When the water’s choppy, try sandboarding on dunes across the country, often in places with rich Aboriginal history, like Henty Dunes in Tasmania.
Local tip: Want to learn more about the history of surf culture and the grassroots campaign by women surf pros to be recognized and celebrated in the sport? Check out the 2021 documentary Girls Can’t Surf.
8. Join Sydney locals on the Bondi to Coogee walk
Hugging 6km (3.7 miles) of coast between two beaches, the clifftop walk from Bondi beach is saturated with blue skies and rolling ocean. No matter how many times you walk it, each turn is a delight: outdoor baths that glitter with crashing ocean waves; Gordon’s Bay decorated with wooden boats; Waverley Cemetery with the most exclusive resting place in Australia; McIver’s Ladies Seawater Baths hewn from rock; and lounging locals at Tamarama, Clovelly and Bronte beaches, each with their own personality.
Local tip: Stop at the Clovelly Bowling Green for a beer and a barefoot game of lawn bowls overlooking the ocean – you just need to sign in as a guest. The walk gets steep after this, so it may be tempting to stay and linger.
Trek through the wonders of Kakadu National Park © Umomos / Shutterstock
9. Feel ancient Australia in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory
Kakadu is the perfect kind of middle of nowhere. It’s the wild Australia that you might have already daydreamed about. Waterfalls bloom from rock, prehistoric crocodiles thrash the wetlands, lorikeets sing, and Aboriginal guides bring ancient rock art to life. As you trek between gorges and woodlands or hike for views over endless treetops, your worries seem far away.
Planning tip: Helicopter or fixed-wing scenic flights are a wonderful way to get a sense of the sheer scale and beauty of Kakadu. Note that flights are only available over Jim Jim Falls in the Wet season – traditional owners request that the skies are rested in the Dry.
10. Celebrate at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade
It might have started off as a protest, but today, over 40 years later, Australia’s largest LGBTIQ+ Pride march parties all night. What makes Mardi Gras stand out are the 200 flamboyant floats. The vehicles are decorated for 12 months, and bespangled dancers practice weekly to sashay for that one night. Grab a stool or milk crate to watch from the sidelines and prepare to shout “Happy Mardi Gras!” to strangers. During the rest of the year, check out Sydney’s nightlife, which excels at cozy, queer-friendly pubs like the Bearded Tit.
It’s a 10km (6-mile) walk around the base of Uluru © Tetra Images / Shutterstock
11. Explore Uluru with an Aboriginal guide
Uluru has been a sacred ceremonial site to the Anangu, the area’s Aboriginal people, for 10,000 years. It’s definitely worth engaging an Anangu guide for the Kuniya walk to the Mutitjulu Waterhole at the base of Uluru to hear ancient stories, decipher rock art and appreciate the significance of Uluru’s towering slopes.
Planning tip: Go at dawn to beat the heat, then go back at night to see the desert illuminated by 50,000 lights in the Field of Light show.
12. Spot native wildlife on Kangaroo Island, South Australia
Kangaroo Island is a montage of Australian nature on show. In one day, you can glimpse koalas snoozing in eucalyptus trees, echidnas waddling, and kangaroos and wallabies sunbathing. In between, walk under the towering stone fossils of Remarkable Rocks and dip your toes in the clear blue waters of a parade of beaches all to yourself (except those guarded by sea lions).
Australians love their “Aussie Rules” – a unique football code with teams originally from Melbourne © Neale Cousland / Shutterstock
13. Cheer on Aussie sports from the Dunny Derby to AFL
Sport is everywhere in Australia, from international matches to the local Dunny Derby (yes, it’s a toilet race). Even if you aren’t a sports nut, seeing a big match taps you into the Australian psyche at its most excitable. Women’s sport is finally getting the attention it deserves in Australia. There’s a good turnout for women’s cricket and Australian Football League (AFL) games these days. Sydney will host the 2027 Netball World Cup, and netball might make it into the Brisbane 2032 Olympics line-up.
Planning tip: Plan ahead for tickets to see the Australian Open tennis in Melbourne or the World Surfing Championships on the Gold Coast.
14. Get naked at a nudist beach
Aussies aren’t that fussed about nudity and what adults do in their own time. Feel the sun bathe every inch of your body at one of Australia’s community-minded nudist beaches. Don’t forget sunscreen; the rays are mighty here, and burnt bits aren’t fun.
Koalas are among the many Australian animals you can easily spot in the wild if you know where to look © Michael Siward / Getty Images
15. Spot a koala
Who doesn’t love a cuddly koala? Just look at their high-on-eucalyptus faces! Fortunately, cuddling koalas is no longer encouraged, even in controlled environments like wildlife parks. Instead, you can spot one high up in the street trees of rural towns around Australia’s southeast coast. As well as admiring the wildlife, look out for opportunities to learn about Australian bush conservation and how people can help wildlife recover after bushfires.
16. Cycle Victoria’s High Country on dedicated rail trails
Thank lockdowns for the cycling rebirth in Australia. The Victorian High Country has rewarding views at every turn. Ribbons of roads and disused railway lines (now reinvented as cycling rail trails) roll out alongside olive groves, tree ferns and wineries between alpine valleys and lake swims. There are long stretches of flats for families and casual riders, and mountain trails right into the bush for the adrenaline-chasing cyclist.
Detour: The High Country boomed with gold in the 1850s, and there are traces of this wealth – and the Chinese miners who sought it – in the towns along the way. Eldorado has a gold museum, while Yackandandah has both quaint tinned-roofed buildings and a historic cemetery dedicated to Chinese gold miners.
Aboriginal rock art can be found in the Northern Territory’s Arnhem Land © Paris Jefferson / Getty Images
17. Admire indigenous rock art
Art has been essential to cultural life through 65,000 years of Aboriginal Australian history. Seeing indigenous art is a captivating launchpad to conversations about Australia today for its First Nations people. Learn more about the significance of rock art from the Northern Territory’s Arnhem Land to the Quinkan rock galleries in Queensland; the emergence of dot paintings on canvas in the 1970s in the Northern Territory; or the storytelling of contemporary works displayed at city museums, such as the Yolngu women’s bark paintings.
18. Drink in Australia’s varied wine regions
Australia is blessed with clean water and rich soil to produce some top wines. Winery hopping lets you feel the sun and country air that fed the grapes while you taste test. Try Old Vine Shiraz in the Barossa Valley (South Australia) or a cabernet sauvignon from the Margaret River region (Western Australia), chased down with chardonnay in the Hunter Valley (New South Wales) and finishing with a pinot noir in the Yarra Valley (Victoria) or a sweet Riesling in Tasmania. You’ll need a few weeks to do it all, and every one of these wine regions is worth visiting for more than just its grapes.
Local tip: Include a gourmet farm-to-table lunch right in the vineyards, with produce freshly plucked from the garden. If you’re booze-free, try some non-alcoholic wine, which is becoming a common sight in Australia.
Tourism can be damaging to the Great Barrier Reef, so explore carefully © Felix Martinez / Getty Images
19. Enjoy the Great Barrier Reef sustainably
The Great Barrier Reef is a masterpiece of thousands of smaller reefs, coral and islands. It’s a world must-see, not just for Australia. There’s no way to recommend a free-for-all visit; climate change and pollution have caused mass coral bleaching, and tourism can be damaging. Yet there are still some straightforward ways to visit in a sustainable way.
There is so much to see: turquoise waters resplendent with sea turtles floating above you and kaleidoscopic coral beneath you; manta rays, dugongs and a treasure trove of fish so diverse that there are species yet to be discovered. It’s enough to turn you into an advocate for marine conservation.
20. Try Aussie snacks
Australian food is world food, but there are some must-try Aussie staples that locals still adore. You might wince, but at least sample some yeasty, salty Vegemite spread thinly on toast. A smoother brunch is smashed avocado toast, an Australian invention; or a Thai curry pie, a spin on a classic Australian meat pie; and a sausage sizzle, the Aussie barbecue version of a hot dog.
You’re most likely to bring home Tim Tams, the chocolate-covered biscuits that Aussies sob longingly for when overseas. Australia’s greatest export to the coffee world is the flat white, which is most famously fine-tuned in Melbourne.
Melbourne’s laneways are lined with street art and dotted with small bars and cafes © Joon Wei Ooi / 500px
21. Stay out all night in Melbourne
In central Melbourne, the street-art-decorated laneways hide a society of wonderfully grungy cocktail bars and clubs. The famously moody weather of the city makes Melbourne an excellent place to go out while being entertained indoors. For interesting drinking, live music, historic theatres and the Melbourne International Comedy and Film Festivals, the city dominates the country’s nightlife calendar.
Planning tip: If you’re traveling with children and want a night out with the kids, check out the Victoria Market Night Market. There’s one in summer and one in winter with street food stalls, buskers, live music and local maker markets. Alternatively, many sporting events that run into the dark hours, like Friday night football, are also pretty child-friendly.
22. Learn about Australia’s migration story
Australia is a vibrant nation of migrants. The Immigration Museum in Melbourne and the Migration Museum in Adelaide bring out the colorful threads of this timeline through memorabilia, voices, artifacts and photos. They celebrate the positive elements in this story and are worth a visit for a deeper understanding of multicultural Australia.
23. Get used to sharing Australia with crocs, spiders and sharks
It’s true, Australia has some top-of-the-food-chain creatures. You have to go out of your way to bump into them, though. Wildlife parks are a (safe) way for kids – and adults – to get their thrills being splashed by a jumping crocodile, wincing at a funnel-web spider or black snake being milked of venom, and spotting the deadly spurs on a platypus. An even mightier heart-thumper is cage-diving at eye- and teeth-level with a great white shark.
Local tip: Obviously, you don’t want to get cozy with deadly Australian animals. Always ask locals for advice on where it is safe to swim or walk, and heed warning signs before heading out.